Gerson: Theorizing about the decline of institutionalized religion
There is a close relationship between culture and cult - between the shared attitudes and values of a people and their religious views and practices. American culture is increasingly shaped by men and women who would rather sleep in or play golf on a Sunday morning.
The nation's religious composition - as revealed in a recent presentation by Luis Lugo of the Pew Research Center - is changing. In 2012, America ceased to be a majority Protestant country - the result, mainly, of a decline in the numbers of mainline Protestants (though there have been smaller losses among white evangelicals as well). Catholicism is holding its own with a stable 22 percent of the public, but its ethnic composition has shifted dramatically - about half of all Catholics under 40 are Latino.
One group, however, has swelled: those with no religious affiliation, also known as "nones" (as in "none of the above"). In the 1950s, this was about 2 percent of the population. In the 1970s, it was about 7 percent. Today, it is close to 20 percent. These gains can be found in all regions of the country, including the South. The trend is particularly pronounced among whites, among the young and among men.
Not all the nones, it is worth pointing out, are secular. Only about 30 percent of this group - 6 percent of the public - are atheists or agnostics. The rest of the nones describe themselves as indifferent to religion or as "nothing in particular." Sixty-four percent of the nones, however, say they believe in God or a universal spirit with "absolute certainty." Even 9 percent of atheists and agnostics - defying both dogma and the dictionary - report themselves absolutely convinced of God's existence. About equal proportions of the religiously unaffiliated (19 percent) and the affiliated (18 percent) report having "seen or been in the presence of a ghost."
So the nones are united, not by reading Richard Dawkins or by any particular set of theological beliefs but by a complete lack of attachment to institutional religion.
This amounts to a missionary movement, gaining converts (actually de-converts) at a serious pace. According to Pew, 74 percent of the nones grew up in a religious tradition of some sort. Yet while conversion has increased the ranks of the nones, retention is not particularly good. Protestantism, for example, loses about 20 percent of those raised Protestants. Of those raised unaffiliated, 40 percent fall away from the non-faith and rebel toward religion, making for a new generation of awkward Thanksgivings.
Though the nones are varied, and occasionally confused, their overall growth has been swift and unprecedented. This has occasioned scholarly disagreement over the causes. Clearly, the social stigma against being religiously unaffiliated has faded. America used to have plenty of Protestant agnostics and Catholic agnostics - people who identified with a faith tradition culturally but not theologically. Such cultural attachment has become less expected and less common. But the decline of religious conformity is itself a major social development, requiring some explanation.
One theory: The accelerated growth of the nones coincided with the rise of the religious right in the 1990s, leading some scholars to assert a connection. Though causality is hard to establish, many nones hold a very dim view of religious conservatives - asserting that churches are too focused on rules and money, and too involved with politics. It is easy to imagine some of the unaffiliated looking at the movement led by Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson and concluding: "If this is religion, I want no part in it."
But the trend appears to run deeper. As Lugo points out, declining trust in religious institutions since the 1990s has been accompanied by declining trust in most institutions (with the notable exception of the military). Confidence in government and big business has simultaneously fallen - and the public standing of both is lower than that of the church. Americans may be less affiliated with religious organizations because they have grown generally more individualistic and skeptical of authority.
Whatever the explanations for the decline of institutional religion, it has major social and political implications. Since the nones are disproportionately liberal and Democratic, what does their rise mean for American politics? More broadly: Is America on the path of secularization that - while delayed - inevitably leads to Sweden? Or can religious institutions adjust their appeal to a nation of individualists? Questions to be addressed in a future column.
Michael Gerson's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.